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March 12, 2015, 12:18 p.m.
Business Models

How Tyler Brûlé has extended Monocle beyond simply a magazine for the jet set

“We want to create and craft an environment where we’re not getting into a discussion about cost per thousands. It’s the cost of a quality audience.”

— It’s lunchtime on a Tuesday, and the Monocle Cafe in the Marylebone neighborhood here is packed. All but one of the tables in the cafe’s lower level is occupied while the counters and couches on the main level are filled with customers eating sandwiches and drinking coffee.

Monocle was initially conceived as a magazine in 2007 covering global affairs and a certain high-end global lifestyle. The brand has since grown to include Monocle 24, a 24-hour online radio station, retail shops in six cities around the world, cafes in London and Tokyo, and more.

“You’re in this like-minded environment, but it’s not exclusive,” said Tyler Brûlé, Monocle’s founder and editor-in-chief, of the London cafe. “You have to know about it — or maybe someone walks in off the street because they want a good cup of coffee. But there is a sort of clubbiness to it, and you see people sort of talking and meeting.”

I met Brûlé at Midori House, Monocle’s London headquarters a few blocks from the cafe, and as he guided me on a tour through the office it was easy to get a spacial sense of the company’s projects. On the ground floor were the two radio studios from which Monocle 24 broadcasts. One level up, the editorial team was closing the April issue of the magazine. On another floor, Winkreative, Brûlé’s creative studio, was finishing up a redesign of Z, the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung’s luxury supplement, and working on branding material for the Union Pearson Express, the new rail link connecting downtown Toronto and the city’s suburban airport.

Monocle was valued at about $115 million when the Japanese newspaper publisher Nikkei invested in the company last fall. Brûlé told me Monocle is “very profitable,” as the magazine has a circulation of about 80,000. (You can tell something about its audience’s habits and aspirations by noting it can describe an edition as “superyacht-sized.”


Brûlé said Monocle is considering adding new shops or cafes, but its next project, launching this spring, will be a Monocle newsstand near London’s Paddington Station. The kiosk will offer a curated selection of magazines and newspapers as well as global newspapers printed on-demand. Customers will be able to register online, request a printing of newspapers ranging from Norway’s Aftenbladet to The Australian, and then come to the newsstand to pick it up.

The newsstand is an experiment, but Brûlé said the company could create franchises and spin off the newsstand business if it succeeds. “It’s important for us to, I think, remind the market that — is it really a crisis of print, or is it a crisis of print distribution? And I would argue that part of it is the latter,” Brûlé told me.

What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation, where Brûlé discussed the importance of print to his model, the thinking behind Monocle’s growth, and how he would approach The New York Times’ continued digital evolution.

Joseph Lichterman: Obviously, there’s the magazine. But with Monocle 24, the cafes, and the shops, it seems like what you’re doing is so much more than a magazine. I’m curious how you see all the extensions of the brand in terms of your mission at Monocle.

Tyler Brûlé: I guess if you rewind eight years ago, we probably didn’t see cafes on the horizon. I don’t think we would have anticipated a radio station.

I guess I would say the first thing is that we’re in a very fortunate position that we’re an independent publisher and we don’t have the commercial pressures of a big parent. And those commercial pressures can be two-fold: One is cost savings, but the other pressures are to go and chase after every new trend. We don’t have an issue of some digital guru or a friend or an investor or a board member who says, Why aren’t you slapping that little bird on the bottom of every webpage and every printed page? And why aren’t you putting that white F on a blue background on everything? So I think that’s also a positive, that we don’t have that influence surrounding our brand, that we have to follow the dictates of a big parent corporation, and that’s been the great thing from the very start.

We see that independence is really incredibly important to us, and has allowed us to be in the luxurious position that we’re in today, where if we decide to do a cafe, we do a cafe — because we think it’s the right thing to do from a brand point of a view, and also from a revenue position. Whereas often times people will say that maybe that’s not core to a digital strategy, or they would be arguing that people aren’t going to be drinking coffee anymore because people are going to be consuming it digitally.

But I think that’s the really exciting thing if you look back at our brand. We have the good fortune as well to be very nimble. If we want to go do something, we just go and do it. Of course, we can do all of that because we have a nicely profitable business, and that’s exciting, because we just organically reinvest in everything that we do without having to go to market to look for more money, and I think also rewarding for everybody on the team in this business as well.

Lichterman: And print is bringing in the majority of that money?

Brûlé: That’s the cash cow. We don’t have a diminished or skeptical view about it. If you look at the latest ABC results that came out about two weeks ago, I’d say we’re one of the strong performers of the U.K. newsstand.


But when we say U.K. newsstand, it’s also international because America is our biggest market. We sell more magazines in the United States on newsstands and with subscriptions than anywhere else in the world, even though this is our home market. We are $12 in the U.S. The new Forecast we put out I think is $20 U.S., and it is growing at the same rate as the $12 magazine.

So that’s just because we have a very different model. I think the scale of the U.S. — and I don’t know if it’s coercion or lack of creativity, but it’s always about chasing scale. I think “premium” has a bad name in the United States. Everyone wants to chase the mass. Particularly in media, everyone wants big numbers. We don’t want big numbers. We want engaged, quality readers, listeners, viewers. That’s what’s important to us.

Lichterman: And I’d imagine that’s the audience your advertisers are interested in as well.

Brûlé: That’s who they are interested in as well. It’s great having lots of likes and lots of followers, but you have to wonder what are they worth if suddenly Twitter started to charge every month, if Facebook started to charge. They are free media, and I don’t think it sort of means a lot, to be honest. If you’re then promiscuous enough to jump to the next channel, how loyal are you as a consumer of brands?

What I think is important to us is that we can say: People spend $150 a year to subscribe to the magazine. There’s absolutely no way for them to get it discounted. They have to spend $150. And they’re probably more likely to fly on your airline, or buy your shoes, or book into your hotel, or purchase one of your cars than someone who is in a free channel.

Lichterman: Your approach to digital is also different from most media organizations. I can’t imagine many outlets would start a 24-hour global radio station online. Why was that the route you wanted to go instead of focusing on something like an app or an iPad edition?

Brûlé: First, I guess working back: For a monthly magazine, I maintain, unless you’re in porn, there’s no money in doing a tablet edition of a magazine. Now we can see, and the results are there, that tablet growth — it just ain’t happening. We’ve been living with tablets for long enough now that we can see that people who like to read on tablets read on tablets, and those who want to read on print read on print. We can see there continue to be more people who read on paper than off of a backlit screen.

And again, there’s no money in adding those extra editions. There’s the production cost: I think everyone was fooled in the beginning by thinking “Oh, we can just do one version for Apple and that’s it.” Now there are myriad different tablets, different operating systems, different formats, which means that what everyone thought just meant posting PDFs, now the demands mean there being moving video, streams, and all kinds of things.

We all know that it takes an extra six or seven staff to make a tablet edition and do it well. And we can’t recover that. The money’s not there every month to recoup that. An advertiser is not going to pay that much more money just because you’re offering them a tablet edition. In fact, they want it as added value. We haven’t found a way, and I haven’t seen anyone who’s making it work. And, certainly on this side of the Atlantic, you’re seeing a lot of the monthly magazines retreat from their tablet editions completely, because it’s just not bearing the fruit that we thought.

We have an app, but the app is there to support radio. And again, I guess our view is the same. Since the very beginning, since the day the magazine launched, there’s always been a paywall around the magazine, and that is because on one side journalism is expensive. We don’t think it’s that important to say that we’ve got millions of viewers on our site. If there are millions of viewers but no revenue stream around it, it’s not interesting. We want to create and craft an environment where we’re not getting into a discussion about cost per thousands. It’s the cost of a quality audience. That’s what we want our advertising partners to take.

Lichterman: Taking a step back, I’m interested in how you decide the right extensions of your brand. A few years ago, you had a TV program with Bloomberg that only lasted a few episodes. How do you decide where the right moves are?

Brûlé: We had a series of television networks, certainly in the early days of the magazine, coming to us to want to do some type of television partnership, and we declined most of them. Bloomberg came along and there was something synergistic with the advertiser, sponsor, who worked with them, the economic development board of Singapore. They were a client of Bloomberg’s; they were a client of ours. They were looking for a video solution, or a television solution, that was global, and that just seemed to fit. So we did a six-part series with them. It was tied to a commercial project as well, so that was interesting because we made lots of money.

Is the exposure great internationally off of Bloomberg? I think for a certain audience. Is it good on the weekends when our program was shown? Probably not. But it was a nice way of dipping our toe in the water. What it did do, more than anything else, is it gave us enough confidence to show that we know how to do broadcast. We have enough people in the building who are ex-television or, this was pre-radio, who even had radio background. That made us think a little bit.

We had a weekly podcast we were doing, called The Monocle Weekly, and we could see that there was some commercial life, because we were able to get some pretty good sponsors for that program. And it was a rather grand jump, but we thought: Why don’t we just build two studios and take this around the clock?

On one side, just thinking about the editorial opportunity, we think there’s something sitting between NPR — and NPR is great, but if you listen to a public service in the United States, they’re always appealing for your wallet for endless hours, which can be a bit grating. But there’s great programming. On the other side, you’ve got the World Service and lots of other state broadcasters, who are very good at what they do, but our view is that BBC, as wonderful an institution as it is, you see a political mandate to be very Africa-focused, be very Indian-subcontinent focused. And we thought our markets — Southeast Asia, Asia, North America, and Europe — there’s really room to do those markets much better.

We thought about digital — what digital channel or what digital application is the closest relationship to what that [pointing to magazine on the coffee table] does every month, where it’s very personal, it’s your Monocle, it has unique tone of voice, et cetera. And we thought audio is the closest thing, because it’s very personal, it’s very intimate, and it’s incredibly fast. It’s still the fastest medium. As long as you are articulate and persuasive, you’re going to get your opinion across faster no matter how fast you can clatter your fingers across a keyboard. So we like that as well.

We knew that, without huge startup costs, we could be in new places, be live, and be incredibly responsive. Radio just sort of seemed right. And it was an easy sell as well: We didn’t have to staff up in a huge way. We were able to get enough people around the microphone, and as much as we brought in professionals, we knew that we had a number of good voices and good minds also in our building. Then, of course, commercially we’ve been able to develop some really great partnerships as well with some major brands.

The distillation of all of that is we make a hell of a lot more money doing radio digitally, web-based, then we would just on running a regular website, a complementary site with live feeds and different columns and things like that. What we do now far outstrips what we could do with banner ads, preroll, or stuff like that.

Lichterman: What’s the listenership look like?

Brûlé: The magazine, print, is going to be plus or minus 5 percent, but I really break the world down into one-third, one-third, one-third. It’s one-third Europe, of course led by the U.K. and Germany. One-third the Americas, led by the U.S. and then Canada. There’s a bit of Mexico, a bit of Brazil, but the story is really a U.S. and Canadian one. And then it’s one-third Asia-Pacific, and that’s led by Australia, then Singapore, and Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan. It’s plus or minus a few points, but that’s roughly how the world works.

For radio, it’s really much more of a North American play. We’re in like the 40 percent territory or more. I guess that has to do with podcasts and the uptake of Internet-based radio, which I think helps on one side. But what we’re seeing, though, is that we’re like 80-20 downloads versus live — but we believe live is important because it gives you just a different type of texture and sound. If you can go in and re-record your podcast a bunch of times it sounds perfect, but it also loses something — not to mention that it’s incredibly costly. When you do something live, I think you do sit up straight. You’re more erect. Your pitch is just different, because you get an edginess with live. There’s no question you make fewer mistakes when you’re live because you don’t have the nets and wires attached to it.

As a consequence of that as well, our live listenership continues to grow, which is great. Even when we’re out in the market, I’m surprised — even when you sit around the microphone you’re hoping people are listening to you in the live context, but often I’m thinking, They’ll be downloading this in an hour, or two hours, or over the weekend. But I’m really surprised you come across people saying, “Oh, I work at a law firm in San Francisco, and this is what’s on in our partner’s office, so we’re always listening to Monocle. So just collectively, you realize you’re at a cafe in Melbourne and that’s what’s on. So it’s good for us, collectively, to see that that’s an area that continues to grow, which is also what we want — because if you think about where in-car listening is going, among some other things, it becomes interesting to us.

Lichterman: Speaking of cafes, why the interest in shops? I understand the revenue opportunities, but with print still bringing in the majority of revenue, what’s the thinking behind it?

Brûlé: With shops, It think there were two elements to it. One is that from the very first issue, if you rewind eight years ago, I think we had this assumption that our readers would be people who are out there in the world and traveling a lot. So we had three bags that we did with a company, Yoshida, in Japan in the very beginning. They started to sell very well, so we always had an e-commerce offer from the very beginning.

And one day there was a flower shop around the corner that I always liked, and they were going out of business. It was such a small space, and I thought it would be horrible to see some big mass chain store try to bulldoze that and connect it to another shop halfway through. So we thought, what if we do this as a Christmas popup store? Now, six years later, it’s still there. It did well. And it was only after it opened that we thought it was interesting to use it as a bit of a laboratory to control your own distribution channel. We started to see how many magazines we could sell in that environment, and we started to expand the product mix.

It was just a different way of engaging with people, instead of just via email, because people would come in and they would give us a very, very good idea of who our readers and customers are. And then it started to make money on its own, so we opened another shop and another shop, and now we have six stores, probably with others on the horizon, and it’s turned into a wholesale business.

It’s 15 percent of our business now — it’s not small anymore. It’s a more serious part of what we do. Now what we think is interesting about it is that it controls the experience. People like to come buy their Monocle at the shop because they get it in a nice envelope, they get a nice bag. It’s maybe nicer than going to their local newsstand. It’s, of course, a moneymaking part of our business, but it gives us a different connection to our customer, which is key.

The cafe — we didn’t really have a cafe in mind until we were approached by a major retailer in Japan. They said, We’re opening a new department store, and it’s focused on men, it’s in Ginza — we’d love to do a Monocle Cafe. So we started to go through the exercise: If we had a cafe, what would we serve, what would we do?

And, of course, because it was Japan it was beautifully executed. We did all of the design. We did everything for it. It started to do well, and then a space became available down the street here, and we seized on the opportunity to take that space over. And now we’re really — I wouldn’t say wrestling, we’re not in any rush, but we just have a lot of offers, so it’s a question of are we going to own and operate them all ourselves? Or are we going to license them like we do in Japan? Again, it’s an environment: You might not know we have a radio station, and people will come in and buy the magazine and you’re among other Monocle readers as well. You’re in this like-minded environment, but it’s not exclusive. You have to know about it — or maybe someone walks in off the street because they want a good cup of coffee. But there is a sort of clubbiness to it, and you see people sort of talking and meeting. So that’s why we thought it would be interesting to do it in other markets. It’s not the case that maybe some companies would say, “it’d be nice to have as a brand extension” — we have to make money, so we want to make sure that all of these ventures that we do have a path to profitability.

Lichterman: Your strategy very specific to the type of organization that you are — not one aiming for a mass audience. I’m curious — looking at an organization like The New York Times or The Guardian, these bigger, more general-interest, publications, how would you approach them in terms of how to run their business or how to continue to evolve digitally?

Brûlé: I think The Guardian has chosen a very specific path, which is that they don’t need to make money. So maybe that would be a starting point to also change what their mandate is. They’ve also dug their heels in very firmly that they want to be a free source, and let’s be honest, I don’t think they’ve thought through their business model. Everyone always talks about the Scott Trust, but the Scott Trust is not a bottomless pit of cash. I think at some point, something is going to have to give. I’m also not sure how sustainable that model is.

I think The New York Times, you can see — it’s interesting that for all of their positive happy-clappy digital talk, all of the fuss given to the relaunch of the magazine and the scale and size of when they do the T supplements speaks to the fact that this is a very significant revenue generator for the newspaper. And I think they realized they had to pay attention to it, because someone obviously did a calculation that if we create some buzz around this, then maybe some advertisers are going to show up. Well, at least for the relaunch, they did.

Lichterman: The next week was like 60 pages — down from 200-plus in the launch issue.

Brûlé: Exactly — but of course, relaunches are always going to be exciting, and maybe that will boomerang back a little bit. But what I think it did underline though was the importance of adjacencies. You realize that in this format [holding up his BlackBerry!] to do things is interesting, but it’s a very small place to be commercially. You don’t get the power of adjacency, of being in with a core print product group beside an ad for Cadillac, beside an ad for Cathay Pacific. There’s something if you’re an advertiser, you’re in a community of like-minded brands and like-minded editorial. Here [his BlackBerry again] I can go and buy space in like-minded editorial, but i’m never going to be surrounded. I’m never going to have that pure adjacency right next to another brand in the same way that I would in print. You can still do a flip through a tablet, but it just doesn’t have that lingering quality. And I think people have come full circle to that. Brands want to have good adjacencies the same way that companies will wait forever to get space between 57th and Madison and 5th — because they want to be in the right company. I think that’s still very hard here.

Lichterman: Is that possible digitally?

Brûlé: So far, from a technology point of view, it’s not. We see that because the page is limited. And I don’t think adjacencies are the same because so many titles have moved to just being ad-served, and they’re based on algorithms, and there’s no creativity. There is still a humanity. We sat down yesterday — we reshuffled the ads [in the next issue] to make sure we had a great product. If something is just ad-served because I went on a search for “cheap flights to Honolulu” and that’s all you get suddenly for the next three months, then (a) there’s no creativity in it and (b) it’s annoying. I think the seed to all of that — that someone is in a cost-per-thousand play — it has nothing to do with the quality of the reader or the quality of the editorial content.

But back to your question: I think The New York Times has been right to certainly look at putting a bit more in and around the print product. I don’t think there’s enough innovation in the newspaper itself. There’s so much innovation going into print technology. I think you can look at the international — I think they made a misstep with the mouthful that is the International New York Times. “IHT” also doesn’t even work, but people prefer the IHT to the INYT. Should it be the NYT? Is “International” important? They know they need to make a global play, but I think to do a proper global play, I firmly believe you need to have real, sizable editorial hubs to make that happen, just to respond to an international audience. I’m not sure they have that anymore.

Photo of Tyler Brûlé by New Media Days used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 12, 2015, 12:18 p.m.
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